The entire “Now About Those Differences” series is available here.
Fellowship and the Evangelical Spectrum
Finally we come to the hard part. I have been writing about fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. In the process, I have tried to articulate briefly a vision of Christian fellowship and separation. This vision involves a boundary (the gospel), outside of which no Christian fellowship is possible. It also involves a center, the whole counsel of God. Increasing levels of fellowship necessarily index to this center.
In my thinking, separation is simply the absence of fellowship. Outside of the boundary, separation is absolute. No Christian recognition should ever be given. Inside the boundary, separation is decided by the extent to which we Christians mutually hold the faith (the whole counsel of God) in its integrity.
Even among fundamentalists, certain separations are unavoidable. These separations are forced upon us when we cannot jointly hold the whole counsel of God in its integrity. In that sense, each separation includes some element of censure. Nevertheless, separation at one level does not necessarily require separation at every other level. Nor do these separations necessarily require that we adopt a contemptuous attitude toward one another. To the contrary, separations can and usually should be carried out with grace and charity.
At the risk of publicly embarrassing a friend, let me cite an example. Some years ago, God in His grace allowed me to make the acquaintance of Dr. Michael Barrett, president of Geneva Reformed Seminary. Dr. Barrett is a committed Presbyterian, while I am a Baptist by conviction. He is a covenant theologian (though a premillennialist), while I am a dispensationalist (though hardly of the Hal Lindsey variety).
It should go without saying that Dr. Barrett and I find our fellowship limited in a number of areas. Both our ecclesiology and our eschatology differ at important points. He is not going to ask me to lecture on baptism and I am not going to ask him to make speeches about pretribulationism.
More importantly, we cannot be pastors in the same church. Dr. Barrett probably could not in good conscience pastor a church that strictly forbade infant baptism. I could not pastor a church that allowed it. Consequently, Dr. Barrett and I are not likely to plant any churches together.
In other words, we separate from one another. We separate in every area that requires a commitment to those areas of eschatology or ecclesiology over which we differ. We cannot cooperate in any way that would require either of us to surrender his obedience (as he understands it) to Christ.
Do not make the mistake, however, of thinking that Dr. Barrett and I see one another as enemies or even opponents. Far from it. When it comes to an understanding of the beauty of holiness, of the majesty of God and the mercy of the Savior, of the importance of gracious affections and the role of sober worship, I find that I have far more in common with Dr. Barrett than I do with most Baptists or dispensationalists.
For the sake of those things, I have a deep respect and love for Dr. Barrett, and I am convinced that he reciprocates. Each of us shares concerns with the other that we share with few other people. We pray for one another. Both of us yearn for God’s best blessings in the ministry of the other. Most germanely, we are committed to fellowshipping and collaborating wherever it is legitimately possible.
To put it baldly, I grieve to be separated from Mike at any level. I see our separation as an evil, and I yearn for the day when our fellowship will be utterly unhindered. If there were a legitimate way of overcoming that separation now, I would pursue it.
Our separation is an evil (an evil circumstance, not an evil act), but it is a necessary evil in view of the alternatives. One alternative would be for one of us to abandon his commitment to obeying Christ. The other alternative would be for us to pretend hypocritically that we are not divided in those areas where divisions really exist. I would sin against Dr. Barrett by asking him to do either of these things.
Until one of us can convince the other of the error of his ways (not a likely prospect at this point in our lives), Dr. Barrett and I will continue to separate from one another where we must. We will also fellowship and work together where we can. We will do both to the glory of God, precisely because we care about one another.
This ought to be our attitude toward all fundamentalists with whom we differ. Indeed, it ought to be our attitude toward all other Christians who stand in some degree of error. We ought to separate where we must, fellowship where we can, and love one another withal.
In my opinion, the now-old new evangelicals were guilty of a very serious error. It was as serious as a Christian can commit. I also believe that hyper-fundamentalists are guilty of errors that are (nearly?) as serious. Very few levels exist at which I can overtly cooperate with exemplars of either group. Fellowship in both instances is severely truncated. Nevertheless, I find leaders in each group who challenge me spiritually and whose examples (at least in limited areas) I wish to emulate. Furthermore, where they are obedient to the Lord and genuinely trying to serve Him, I want them to succeed.
Other fundamentalists do not necessarily draw the lines where I do. On one hand, some are more willing than I am to cooperate on the neoevangelical side. For example, Carl F. H. Henry (one of the original neoevangelicals) would sometimes attend chapel at Maranatha Baptist Bible College, where he would be asked to lead students and faculty in prayer. On the other hand, some are more willing than I am to cooperate on the hyper-fundamentalist side. Bob Jones University, for instance, has featured Clarence Sexton (a King James Only advocate) on its platform.
So what? My conscience, my attempt to apply biblical principles, does not govern the ministries of others. I am perfectly willing to concede that they may have the best reasons for making the decisions that they have made. Our ability to apply the principles of Scripture is often influenced by the circumstances in which we find ourselves and by the perceptions that control us. We need to allow each other a measure of latitude to apply those principles differently.
Limits still exist, of course. Even if we recognize that we are making judgment calls, we know that some judgments are better than others. A consistent pattern of poor judgments may lead us to rethink our relationship with a leader or an institution. We may even be constrained to offer a rebuke or a warning. Even then, however, we need to discipline ourselves to act with grace and charity, lest our separations become an endless round of one-upmanship and self promotion.
So what about my own actual choices? Two are worth mentioning.
The first occurred several years ago when I was invited to preach for the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, International. After I had accepted, I learned that I was to share the platform with Clarence Sexton. Some fundamentalists encouraged me to withdraw my name from the conference (i.e., to separate from the FBFI because of its affiliation with Pastor Sexton).
On my view, sharing a platform constitutes a relatively low level of mutuality and commitment, ceteris paribus. I believe that one’s presence on a platform entails little if any endorsement of the other speakers or of their positions. Reasonable people of all sorts are able to understand the differences between individuals who happen to be speaking at the same event. In my estimation, so-called “platform fellowship” is only a notch above personal fellowship in terms of its requirements.
Other fundamentalists weigh platform fellowship more seriously. This is probably not the place for a full discussion of that subject, though I believe that the interaction would be very useful. Whatever our conclusions, we do need to bear one factor in mind: we must apply our principles consistently. Those who believe that platform fellowship does constitute a significant endorsement are responsible to separate from friends as well as from opponents, from those on their Right as well as those to their Left. The greatest argument against the fundamentalists’ insistence upon highlighting platform fellowship is the inconsistency of the very fundamentalists who are most likely to make that argument.
At any rate, I did not believe that I should withdraw from the FBFI platform over the presence of Pastor Sexton. My presence there was no endorsement of his views in the King James debate, nor was his presence any endorsement of mine. In other words, I was not prepared to separate from the FBFI over the invitation of Clarence Sexton (who, I must add, I appreciate at several levels).
More recently, I have applied the same principle in a different direction. I was asked to speak this coming February at a conference being hosted by Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary. This is a conference at which I have spoken many times in the past. This time, I was told that Dr. Mark Dever would be on the platform. In many ways I am a great admirer of Pastor Dever, but the differences between us are quite real. We differ markedly over dispensationalism, over limited atonement, and over the value of the Southern Baptist Convention. Pastor Dever is a committed Southern Baptist, while I question the value of affiliating with a convention that will not respect at least the fundamentals as a test of fellowship (I am speaking here of convention membership and participation, not of institutional employment).
These differences limit the possibility of cooperation with Pastor Dever at more than one level. Nevertheless, appearing on the same platform does not (as I see it) constitute an endorsement of his views in those areas over which we differ. If it did, Mark would be as eager to avoid endorsing my views as I am to avoid endorsing his!
The issues over which I differ with Dever are less serious than the issues over which I differ with Sexton. In both cases, however, my thinking is essentially the same. We cannot cooperate in areas where we really have no fellowship. Our actual fellowship is limited wherever we do not hold the whole counsel of God together. Where we do, the fellowship is real and cooperation ought to be possible. Platform presence generally constitutes a very low level of cooperation and requires minimal agreement in the faith. I was not willing to separate from the FBFI over Clarence Sexton, and I am even less willing to separate from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary over Mark Dever.
As I write these words, I do so with full awareness that either Calvary Seminary or the FBFI may see things differently. One or the other (or both!) might very well choose to separate from me. That, too, is part of the judgment that they must make, and I must grant them liberty to make it. I am not the one to whom they will answer.
For my part, the dictum is pretty simple. Let us separate where we must. Let us fellowship where we can. Let us love one another withal.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Earth grown old, yet still so green,
Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
Earth grown old.
We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
Inner swathings of her fold.
When will fire break up her screen?
When will life burst thro’ her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
Earth grown old.